How to Deal With Difficult Clients

By MBO Partners |

Updated Friday, June 16, 2017


One of the most difficult aspects of transitioning to the independent workforce can be managing the client-consultant relationship. Occasionally, you may find yourself faced with a particularly difficult situation: your client relationship is strained and you’re not sure how to handle it.

When working closely with a client on a project that is of high importance to them, an extended deadline, misconstrued expectations, or a strategy disagreement can cause tension. Here are five ways to handle common consultant-client relationship roadblocks.

1. Have a detailed contract and refer to it in cases of scope creep

Before you start any work, you and your client should have a detailed contract in place. The contract should outline the specific work you will be producing, the timeline for the work, and the exact amount of compensation.

When a client asks you to add 20 minutes of work here, or an extra round of edits there, beware of scope creep. These little favors can quickly add up to a lot of additional work. If you’re asked to perform above and beyond the terms of your original negotiated contract, simply refer the client back to it. Discuss appropriate extra charges for additional tasks. This will allow you to finish the project as originally discussed and avoid being undercharged for the value you provide.

2. Send a weekly update

When working with a difficult client, communication is of the utmost importance. For example, if a client is constantly checking in to ask about the status of a project, set communication boundaries by establishing a set schedule. Let the client know you will update them via phone or email on a specific day of the week and then follow through. They will gradually learn to trust you more and worry a little less.

3. Document all interactions

Occasionally, a client may try and veer off course from what you’ve verbally agreed on. Whenever possible, get agreements in writing and then save email or chat exchanges. If you speak with a client on the phone, send a follow-up email to confirm what you discussed. These documents will serve as proof of what you’ve agreed to and will help keep your project on course.

4. Work through differences by maintaining mutual respect

Finding the perfect consultant-client match where you have mutual agreement and understanding about everything is a rarity. Remember, both you and the client bring different strengths and weaknesses to the relationship. For example, if you have a client who is technologically adverse it can be easy to get frustrated—especially if you’re used to communicating by email. Rather than patronizing a client who has trouble using technology, take time to walk them through necessary procedures and be sure to ask for input on their area of expertise. Likely you can both learn a lot from each other.

5. Walk away

Although it’s usually better to try and negotiate with clients and work out your problems, sometimes you have to cut your losses and walk away. If attempts at a compromise have been unsuccessful, or if a project or client is truly not the right fit for you, it is okay to respectfully exit. Prioritizing your business and reputation will be better for your career in the long run rather than sticking out a bad situation.

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